Volunteer fight back against east Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels threatens new confrontation

Steelworkers from plants owned by the country’s richest man on Friday joined police on patrols to reverse the tide of lawlessness in this industrial port city.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Steelworkers from plants owned by the country’s richest man on Friday joined police on patrols to reverse the tide of lawlessness in this industrial port city.

About 120 kilometres north of Mariupol, armed volunteers dressed in black stationed in a village just inside the troubled Donetsk region say they intend to expel their foes through force if necessary.

The groups opposed to pro-Russian insurgents who have swept through eastern Ukraine have scored early successes, but threaten to open a new and dangerously unpredictable cycle of confrontation.

Government forces have in recent weeks achieved limited results in quashing the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” — armed formations that this week declared independence for their regions following contentious referendums.

That has handed the initiative to forces acting independently of authorities in the capital, Kyiv.

In Mariupol, the second-largest city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s Metinvest holding group agreed with steel plant directors, police and community leaders to help improve security and get insurgents to vacate the buildings they had seized.

Several dozen Metinvest workers in overalls and helmets Friday cleared out barricades of debris and tires outside the Mariupol government building. Trucks carried it away and by midday, the barricades were nearly gone.

“(Residents are) tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop,” said Viktor Gusak, one of the Metinvest employees cleaning the street.

Akhmetov has been notable for his noncommittal during the turbulence that has for more than a month gripped the region that is home to his most lucrative industrial assets, so the development is noteworthy.

A video statement by Akhmetov, 47, on Thursday made it clear that his loyalties are not so much with the Kyiv government but with his native Donbass — a territory that encompasses the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The only way, he said, was to effect major constitutional reforms, while preserving a united Ukraine.

“This is when power goes from Kyiv to the regions. This is when authorities are not appointed but elected. And this is when local authorities take responsibility for people’s real future,” he said.

Independence or absorption into Russia would spell economic catastrophe for the region, he said.

Since President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in February, Ukraine’s new leadership has reached out to oligarchs for help — appointing them as governors in eastern regions, where loyalties to Moscow were strong. Akhmetov, who served in Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, has avoided such engagements and his attempt to set future terms on the future of the east may cause the government to bristle.

A representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic was also a party to the Akhmetov-brokered deal in Mariupol, but the insurgent group later disavowed its participation.

Instead, Donetsk People’s Republic adviser Roman Manekin said in his own video address that Akhmetov should submit to the authority of the new would-be independent entity.

“We impatiently await such a statement. Otherwise, there will be no Akhmetov in Donbass,” Manekin said.

Manekin didn’t specify how the Donetsk People’s Republic intended to enforce its demands.

German Mandrakov, once the commander of Mariupol’s pro-Russian insurgent occupied government building in Mariupol, said Friday that his associates fled while he was “forced” to leave the building they had controlled for weeks.

“Everyone ran away,” he said, using a vulgar Russian word for cowards. “Someone is trying to sow discord among us, someone has signed something, but we will continue our fight.”

Mariupol’s first major citizen patrol sponsored by Metinvest was held Thursday, police spokeswoman Yulia Lafazan said, adding there were now 100 groups of men consisting of two policemen and six to eight steelworkers patrolling the city.

The industrial labourers of eastern Ukraine have a history of mobilizing to achieve political goals. In the late 1990s, hundreds of coalminers marched on Kyiv demanding wage hikes in scenes that remained impressed in the memory of many Ukrainians.

In the bucolic rural setting of Velyka Novosilka, a village some two hours’ drive northwest of Mariupol, a shadowy fledgling volunteer militia calling itself the Donbass Battalion spoke of its own plans to expel pro-Russian insurgents.

The militia took over a police station Thursday and took down the Donetsk People’s Republic tricolour that had been fluttering outside.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Donbass Battalion commander Semyon Semyonchenko denied his unit had received financial aid from either the government or tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, who media reports have linked with pro-government militias.

On Friday, around 20 battalion members were seen napping on bales of hay in a barn in Velyka Novosilka and gave no immediate indication of plans to deploy elsewhere. At least one identified as an activist in the nationalist Svoboda party, whose role in the interim government installed after Yanukovych’s ouster has led pro-Russian activists to decry what they have dubbed a “fascist junta.”

Other similar and apparently unaccountable groups look to be emerging.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is running for president in a May 25 vote, announced Friday that 20,000 volunteers have enrolled in a resistance movement.

Speaking to supporters in the Poltava region, which lies just east of Kyiv, she said that militia units and defence brigades have already been created, although she provided few specifics.

When and if such groups make substantive incursions into the east, it is to be seen whether they will be perceived as liberators or attackers acting on behalf of a little-liked government. The latter could well precipitate civil conflict.

At the heart of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, however, it is the pro-Russia insurgents that are busy fortifying their territories.

Outside the strategic city of Slovyansk, an insurgent stronghold for more than a month now, armed separatists installed a new checkpoint on the eastern approaches to the city. That checkpoint blocks a major highway that links Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city — with the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don across the border.

In Kyiv, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, on Friday urged residents of the eastern regions to stop helping the separatists and support the central government.

“You’ve got to support the anti-terrorist operation so that we could defeat terrorists and separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions together,” he told the parliament. “The actions of the terrorists are threatening lives and welfare of the people.”

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